Home Theater Technology at Comdex '97

All of the major consumer-electronics "convergence" companies were in attendance at this year's computer panoply: Sony, Pioneer, Philips, Hitachi, Sharp, Samsung, and on and on. Expanding upon a trend begun last year, each of the majors was displaying roughly equal parts computer goods and home/consumer gear.

In fact, it's getting harder to tell where Comdex is ending and the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) is beginning these days.

Of note for the extreme home-theater fan were amazing new display technologies. Both large-scale LCD and plasma screens were in abundance, with 40" to 50" sizes common.

We saw beautiful screens from Pioneer, Fujitsu, NEC, and Hitachi, among others. The screens were generally shown displaying both DVD video---movies and promo loops---as well as live computer desktops.

We first bumped into Fujitsu's Plasmavision 42 display. With a 42" diagonal screen size (natch), 16:9 aspect ratio, and less than 6" depth, this panel has been available since February 1997 and retails for $12,500. The display accepts both VGA or SVGA computer sources as well as common TV signals such as NTSC, PAL, and SECAM through BNC or S-video connections. A little pricey for a TV, but super cool, and you can have one right now and hook it up.

Pioneer promised their 40" plasma display to be available in significant quantities by the time of the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. This particular display sports a 4:3 aspect ratio and was being demoed with a Pioneer DVD player and surround system. Price of admission: $14,995.

Around the corner from the 40-incher was a stunning 52" Pioneer prototype screen brandishing high-contrast, razor-sharp computer video despite the bright ambient light hitting the display from all around. This one had a 16:9 aspect ratio and would be a natural for a tweak HDTV or DVD/computer-based system. Pricing and release date are still up in the air---we'll let you know when we hear something about this wonder.

Hewlett-Packard created a striking booth on the main floor with a stage surrounded by a half-dozen large plasma displays (not their own), positioned both horizontally and vertically, running product demos. Doing a quick calculation, the screens alone set them back at least $75,000!

The intriguing element about this demo was that the horizontal displays held a normal HDTV-like image, while the vertical displays held a similar image, but arranged for what would seem a "sideways" screen. Seeing an image of someone talking where the whole body was framed tightly from the waist up worked well. In fact, commercial demand for this type of display will hopefully help drive prices down rather quickly, making them acceptable for the consumer market within a couple of years.

DVD players and recorders were in evidence throughout the show, with opposing formats squaring off in what looks to be a bloody battle. Creative Labs, who sired the Sound Blaster PC sound card years back, were promoting their PC-DVD RAM drive, which will begin shipping in the first quarter of 1998 with an estimated street price of around $800. When needled about the format wars, the Creative spokesperson did state that the release date was contingent on "standards being settled." What optimism.

All in all, the 1997 Comdex highlighted once again the "war for eyeballs" strategy being adopted by most large computer and consumer electronics aggregations. Stay tuned to this website for more details on DVD, surround-sound, and display technologies as they emerge.